The New York Times: The Emotional and Financial Shock of Becoming a Young Widow

Natalie Davis, freelancer in fashion merchandising | Emily Berl for The New York Times

Natalie Davis, freelancer in fashion merchandising | Emily Berl for The New York Times

Natalie Davis was married with a 5-year-old and three months pregnant with her second child when her husband died. She was 31.

Suddenly, Natalie, a full-time businesswoman, was a widow and a single mom. She had no safety net (her husband did not have life insurance) and no clear path forward.

“Nobody expected him to die at 45,” said Natalie, now 36. “He literally just dropped. Metaphorically speaking, that can happen to anything. It was a wake-up call.”

In the years after his death, Natalie relied heavily on her credit cards and accrued lots of debt.

“Going through high school and college, I always had some sort of a credit-card debt,” she said. “So I’d worked hard to get out of debt,” and she had finally established good credit. But as she struggled to deal with the loss of her husband, she ran up credit card bills again.

“Now I find myself digging out of another debt hole,” she said. “I have to be careful about where I put my money, where I spend it. I hate packing my lunches for work, but I do it.”

While she is considering where to cut corners, and what she can allow herself, her philosophy on money is relatively simple.

“I feel like I can always make more of it,” she said. “That’s a pro. I feel like I don’t hang on to it or have such an attachment to the dollar. On the other hand, I feel like I have to make that dollar stretch a lot more. I’m one mistake away from not being able to pay a mortgage or put my daughter in day care.”

Natalie does not have any savings, which she says makes her a little more cautious but is not a source of great anxiety.

The biggest trade-off she has made was leaving a full-time executive position to spend more time with her 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. “I’m the only parent they have,” she said, “and they’re young.”

She is now a freelancer working with clients in fashion merchandising and product development. The flexibility is important to her, but her salary can swing by as much as $20,000 a year, without ever quite amounting to six figures. She said her number of clients had grown, but she was not completely removed from the financial struggle.

But the change was worth it to get time with her children. “I see their development getting so much better,” she said, “especially my son.”

Natalie said she was getting over the guilt she felt about not being able to give her children everything, especially in the absence of their father.

“This is what we have, and this is what we’re going to work with,” is her mantra, of sorts. “I’m definitely less hard on myself about not being able to provide in all aspects. I just cut myself a little more slack, because I used to physically lose hair over it.”

This mom has also carved out two small luxuries for herself that she says have made her life much better, even if she can feel it in her wallet.

“I’m going out tonight,” she says, on one of the evenings she sets aside to spend with other mothers. Only in the last year has she felt comfortable enough with “biting the bullet, and hiring a babysitter because it was needed.”

The other little thing she says she will not bend on is having a housekeeper come once a month to help out.

“It chops off an entire day for me,” she said. “That’s time I can now take my kids out and do things with them. I don’t feel so guilty about that anymore, but I used to.”

Jarrett Hill is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. He hosts Back2Reality, a politics and pop culture podcast for NBCBLK.

Jarrett Hill